Is art worth more than life?

When we argue over methods of protest, we ignore important causes


Serena Liu

Climate activists Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland were arrested Oct. 14 after tossing a can of tomato soup at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Plummer, at just 21 years old, attempted to glue her hand to the wall before telling onlookers that with the rising cost of oil, many families do not have enough money to heat soup.

A viral video shows two activists flinging tomato soup at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Then, with the $81 million painting dripping red, the activists superglued themselves to the wall and asked the crowd, “Is art worth more than life?”

The protestors had no intention of ruining the painting, which was protected behind a layer of glass, but have been charged with criminal damage to the frame. The two were members of Just Stop Oil, a United Kingdom-based advocacy group protesting the country’s approval of over 40 new fossil fuel projects by 2025. This event was part of a long string of climate-related attacks on art worldwide, from smearing mashed potatoes on a Monet to an attempted caking of the Mona Lisa. Although protestors hope their actions will spur governments toward addressing the looming climate catastrophe, they have instead polarized the public into a debate on whether attacking art is justifiable.

One consideration in this debate is whether protests targeting art institutions are effective. Frequent attacks on well-known, adored art pieces have certainly brought attention to the climate cause — but will this attention bring about change? In 2011, protestors held a 25-hour-long sit-in at Tate Modern to protest the London-based art museum’s partnership with British Petroleum due to the oil company’s contribution to global warming. Eventually, Tate Modern cut ties with BP, though they claimed this was due to business costs. Since then, following years of protest, other cultural institutions have also ended their partnerships with oil companies. But despite these small victories, these demonstrations alone are not enough because oil and gas industries’ profits have continued to skyrocket, and in 2021, nations worldwide provided $700 billion in subsidies for these companies.

A few of the many attacks on art pieces worldwide by climate activists since May. Many protestors have taken steps to avoid harming artwork by targeting frames and glass-protected pieces. (Serena Liu, Ashlyn Gillespie)

Furthermore, even when activists only intended to threaten and not damage beloved artworks, these iconic pieces feel like innocent collateral in their crusade. Why must we choose between art and life when art is such an important part of all our lives? Historically, attacking art often causes more public backlash than support, which we already see in much of the press and online response to the “Sunflowers” attack. Research shows that while disruptive protests may gain attention, they reduce the popularity of important causes. Even beyond the climate movement, the public seems to focus on whether protests are “right” rather than on the urgent causes activists advocate for. 

But this begs the question, what type of activism would be the most appropriate? While attacking art can be highly alienating, unlike past violent demonstrations, these protests have not harmed any people or, ultimately, any art. Furthermore, many other forms of activism have been criminalized and unsuccessful, with peaceful protesters worldwide facing heightened prosecution and ridicule

And, ridiculously, the “Sunflowers” soup stunt has brought more attention to the climate cause than the death of Wynn Bruce, a climate protestor who set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court in April. The fact that the public has focused more on the “Sunflowers” incident rather than a man’s death suggests that perhaps we pay more attention to the materialistic value of art rather than the value of human life.

Alumna Ulaa Kuziez protests at the 2019 St. Louis Youth Climate Strike US. (Dani Fischer)

Indeed, for decades, protestors have begged policymakers to recognize the lives impacted by climate change. Over a century of scientific evidence supports that human activities have caused rapid warming of the Earth. Rising global temperatures lead to intensified swings in weather, with colder winters and hotter summers, but also make natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis and droughts occur more often and be more devastating. Hotter temperatures, droughts and severe storms will continue to kill and force millions to leave their homes. In Pakistan, over 30 million people have been displaced since August due to floods likely caused by climate change. Yet, despite all these efforts and all the people suffering globally, greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity have only continued to increase.

It is this feeling of hopelessness and futility that fuels climate activists to take to museums and art galleries. Oftentimes, climate protestors are young and rightfully impassioned for the sake of all our futures. We have inherited a deteriorating Earth and are running out of time to save it. A UN climate report has stated that global greenhouse emissions must begin decreasing before 2025 and be curtailed by 43% by 2030 if we have a liveable planet. While we spend time debating the reasoning behind these attacks, the climate crisis is only worsening.

So yes, attacking art is likely not an effective form of protest. But instead of asking whether throwing tomato soup at a Van Gogh is appropriate, perhaps we should consider why young people are forced to go to such lengths to get anyone to pay attention to our dying planet.